Is the Majority Always Right?

By Eli Mina, M.Sc.

At a recent workshop, a newly elected municipal official said this: "A wise person taught me that, with a Council of seven members, the most important number is four. With four votes you can change policy. With four votes you can provide exceptional leadership. With four votes you are at liberty to govern however you wish. "

On the surface, this seems like good practical advice. After all, in parliamentary democracies, a fundamental principle of decision making is: The majority rules. In order to adopt a proposal or enforce a measure, a voting body requires that more members vote yes than vote no. If not, the proposal is defeated. With this in mind, the numbers are "the only thing that matters." Right? Not so. Something significant is missing.

Here is the problem: Have you ever observed an aggressive and impatient majority forcing its will on a helpless minority by cutting off debate prematurely? Ever witnessed a majority being stubbornly entrenched and unwilling to tolerate new data that might lead to enlightened and thoughtful decisions? In such cases, there may very well be enough votes in the affirmative, but this does not change the fact that the decision-making process is flawed, possibly leading to bad decisions that the majority may live to regret.

Yes, the numbers are important. But if the group focuses exclusively on the number of votes, it may end up making its collective decisions on the basis of ignorance, self interest, emotion, and loud and aggressive voices, instead of making them on the basis of objectivity, full knowledge, and a careful analysis of the issues at hand.

With numbers-based democracies, the end (getting enough votes) justifies the means, which may prompt some people to make pre-meeting deals on how they'll vote. On the other hand, with knowledge-based democracies, members refuse to commit their votes in advance of a meeting. Instead, they arrive at meetings with fully open minds, listen to everyone, and treat "minorities" as partners in decision-making.

With numbers-based democracies, assertive and persuasive advocates tend to prevail. With knowledge-based democracies, the people with the most relevant information and the most astute analysis are listened to. The group has a culture that promotes learning, inquiry and excellence in decision-making. Ultimately, democracies that are primarily focused on the number of votes are more likely to produce flawed and risk-prone decisions. On the other hand, knowledge-based democracies are more likely to produce informed decisions that increase opportunities and minimize risks for the affected organizations.

Looking at this from another angle: Democratic decision-making bodies often use rules of order in meetings. The core premise should be that rules (relating to quorum, voting, motions, amendments, etc.) should be used as a means to an end and not as an end in themselves. Rules should advance knowledge-based decision-making, rather than manipulate the flow of a meeting and overpower minorities. A flawed proposal should not win solely because its advocates are capable of using rules to advance it. And a good proposal should not be defeated solely because its proponents do not know how to use the rules to pass it.

So, is the majority always right? Is four the most important number on a Council of seven? Only if the four have knowledge on their side; only if members come to meetings with open minds and are prepared to learn from the discussions; and only if the meeting environment is kept safe. Yes, the numbers are important, but they should be backed by objectivity and knowledge.

Good luck.

Eli Mina is offering the following workshops in March at the Delta Barrington Hotel, Halifax, NS: